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"Women Marry Men Hoping They Will Change"

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"WOMEN MARRY men hoping they will change. Men marry women hoping they will not. So each is inevitably disappointed," said Albert Einstein.

•THE GREAT physicist's theory on marital hopes is a nutshell description of the wedlock of Diana Spencer and Charles, Prince of Wales.

The other evening, desperately trying to escape further coverage of the Malaysian plane tragedy, I happened upon a PBS special, Diana vs. The Queen. I don't know when this first appeared, but I'd never seen it. And, being a slave to all things royal, I watched.

It didn't tell me much I didn't already know, but there were some excellent, slightly-out-of-focus "dramatizations." These were with women who bore striking resemblances to Diana and QE2. And also there were some startlingly frank comments from the likes of one of Diana's bodyguards, journalists and various courtiers and "experts."

What struck me as I watched was the terrible feeling of foreboding it cast. We know the story ends horribly. But the saga of this complex young woman, thrown into the Windsor lion's den, without guidance or much concern for her feelings, struck me as a truly grand, almost operatic tragedy.

Certainly nothing since the abdication of King Edward VIII to marry Wallis Simpson so shattered the complacency of the British royals as did the tall, willowy Diana. At least, as shocking as it was, Edward left England and continued to annoy the family as the Duke of Windsor, international socialite.

But Diana not only did as she pleased, eventually she stuck around so that the Royal family she believed had never cared about her feelings, and had, indeed, plotted to keep her in her place, had to pay attention. She was desperately unhappy. (And the word "plot" actually was used by Diana's bodyguard, in talking about how the Queen -- for she was the final authority -- attempted to control the princess.)

•DIANA couldn't quite grasp what had happened to her. She was no scullery maid, elevated to a princess. It was her very respectable and distinguished family, along with her virginity, that made her appear to be an ideal choice for Charles. But she was called "Shy Di" at first. When she learned of her fiancé's undying loyalty to his former mistress, the married Camilla Parker Bowles, Diana seriously considered breaking the engagement. But, she was trapped, too far in, the world was watching. She would have to endure with a stiff upper lip. The Queen, whom Diana at first thought might be sympathetic, certainly wasn't about to coddle Diana.

•PERHAPS a kind word or two might have helped. But the highly emotional Diana was the sort of girl for whom a torrent of words was never enough.

We know what happened. By the time the wedding rolled around, Diana had achieved a pop-culture paparazzi-mad status shared only, at that time, by Elizabeth Taylor and Jackie Onassis. Madonna would join this stellar quartet within two years.

Diana suffered from bulimia, loneliness, jealousy. But she provided an "heir and a spare" and so her duty was done. But the House of Windsor had not anticipated Diana's lock on the public's affections. Despite her dramatic weepings and suicide attempts behind the walls of Kensington Palace, outwardly she was a perfect princess -- almost too perfect, too popular for comfort. Prince Charles felt diminished. So did the Queen. Only one royal mattered -- Diana.

By the time Diana colluded with Andrew Morton on Diana: Her Story, the marriage was in tatters. The book, replete with condemnations of Charles and the entire experience, put the wedlock irretrievably into the shredder. Charles had fully returned to the arms of Camilla and Diana herself had taken lovers. She flaunted her popularity and demanded she be allowed to do the kind of charity work she wanted -- AIDS, in particular. Deals were struck to placate both Diana and the Queen, who bristled at having to strike any kind of deal with...anybody! Diana refused to sign a paper saying she had nothing to do with the publication of Andrew Morton's book."The Firm" (as the royal family is known) felt betrayed. In an earlier time, she might have been beheaded, or locked in a convent or had her children taken from her.

•MORE SCANDALS, more interviews, more lectures from "The Firm," more media manipulation from Diana. Divorce was inevitable. (Diana would say, with a laugh verging on tears, that the Queen's letter to her, urging her to divorce, was "The first I have ever received from her!")

And now came punishment. If she could not be locked away, she would be stripped of almost everything given to her. The title of HRH, her Scotland Yard protection! There were issues of money and the Queen very much wanted Diana to be divested of the title "Princess of Wales." This last was not accomplished.

She grew stronger, more fully charitable, more beautiful away from Charles and the royals. And more reckless, too.

Her final fling with Dodi Fayed -- complete with leopard-skin bathing suits and "private' kisses made public -- seemed nothing more than another way to embarrass and annoy The Firm. She died in a Paris tunnel, with her lover, racing away from the paparazzi, a drunken Al Fayed employee at the wheel. Conspiracy theories still persist, but there is some truth, as was pointed out in this TV special, that The Firm had essentially murdered Diana. "She'd be alive today, if she hadn't had to depend on protection outside of Scotland Yard."

The Queen? There are theories that she came to her senses finally, as evidenced by Helen Mirren's brilliant portrayal of her. But movie revelations aside, after a week of wrestling with her pride, The Queen appeared in front of Kensington Palace, and as Diana's coffin passed, bowed her head, probably the most difficult physical act of this woman's life. (She was known to have wept publicly only once -- when the British government took away the royal yacht! This last is described as "the greatest tragedy of her life.")

But most telling was the brief moment of footage as Diana's funeral cortege rolled on. The Queen, turned away with the rest of The Firm, and her expression said it all, "Well, we're done with her. That's the last."

As I said above, an opera, a magnificent opera, awaits this tale. If only Verdi were here to do it! (And if only Callas was here to play...both roles!)